Welcome to my new blog!

After a couple of years of cajoling and encouragement from friends and colleagues, and a few months of my own contemplation and procrastination I have decided to venture into the blogosphere. My hope is to offer some ideas, information, and insights that will be of interest to community developers and their partners in Massachusetts and perhaps around the country. I welcome your feedback and comments as I hope this blog becomes a vehicle for sparking conversation and debate about key issues in our field.

Right now I am reading a very interesting book called Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. I started reading the book because I am in Israel for the rest of January with a Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) delegation of non-profit leaders. We will be meeting with our counterparts in Boston’s sister city of Haifa and around the country, including some affordable housing advocates. I’ll be writing more about that later.

But right now I am really enjoying this book. While it is providing me with good context for my trip, it also has very relevant lessons for the work we are doing in Massachusetts with our Community Development Innovation Forum. You see, it turns out that Israel is the world’s leader in innovation and entrepreneurial activity – especially in the high-tech, biotech and smart energy fields.  The authors explore the cultural and environmental factors that support so much innovation. According to the authors, it flows from such factors as a lack of hierarchy, a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, a propensity to argue, debate, question and challenge authority, and an ability to see failure as learning step toward success rather than a reason to quit. In short,  it requires “chutzpah!”  Innovation has also been spurred by necessity (lack of natural resources, constant threats, economic and political isolation in the region) immigration, universal military service, and a strong commitment to education.   Entrepreneurialism is produced “when people can cross boundaries, turn societal norms upside down, and agitate in a free market economy … to catalyze radical ideas.”  The biggest obstacle to such innovation it turns out is “order. A bit of mayhem is not only healthy, but critical.”

Of course, there must be some balance. Israeli entrepreneurs benefit from “stable institutions and the rule of law,”  but also from Israel’s “nonhierarchical culture where everyone in business belongs to overlapping networks produced by small communities, common army service, geographic proximity and informality.”

When we are at our best, I think the community development field shares many of these attributes and characteristics. But I do worry that sometimes  we are afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, our own customs and practices, or powerful authorities, including funders and government officials. There may be a tendency to think that all of us should do the same thing or pursue the same solutions. We are often quick to judge and criticize those who try things differently. Too often we are afraid to acknowledge something has failed and when we do see failure we may see that as a permanent taint rather than a learning opportunity. In our desire for scale, efficiency, and an orderly delivery system, will we stifle the very innovation we need to achieve our ambitious goals?

My own sense is that we are all going to have to get more comfortable with disruption, confusion, disagreement, failure, and a bit of chaos if we are serious about creating a culture of innovation in our field. 

What do you think? Do you want to argue with me about that? Either way, post your comment!




This is an exciting new part of MACDC and definitely requires the "chutzpah" you mention. Hopefully this blog will give us some of that mayhem we need.

I agree, Joe, disruption and confusion are the experiences of many non-profits that I work with. This phenomena we are experiencing propels us into rapid and ongoing change. It requires us to develop a high tolerance of ambiguity, that can result in action that is grounded in reassessment, reorganization and re-invention. David Wilkinson's book, The Ambiguity Advantage, describes for types of leadership: Technical (where leaders deal with ambiguity with denital, fueling their own uncertainty), Coopertaive (where leaders build teams to mitigate the ambiguity), Collaborative (where leaders practice a consensual examination approach focusing on team values and agreement), and Generative (where leaders use ambiguity to find opportunity, learning and innovation). If you want to know how well you tolerate ambiguity, complete this scale: http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0ATUB-kzeESsHZGM3djZnbV80OWM4YmQ4cWRu&h...

Our reality does not have to result in disagreement and failure - here I disagree with you a little, Joe. We shouldn't be comfortable with these things. They are a call to a different kind of leadership. For many organizations it means taking a collective 'time out' to examine the current forces at play and how perceived threats or failure can be re-framed as opportunities. Identifying strengths and moving to build on them will reposition our organizations to be more sustainable. Not long ago, we did this as a practice every bunch of years as part of strategic planning but perhaps now we need to retreat and engage in this reflection more frequently.

Keep blogging, Joe! The model of flatter structures and more controlled chaos as a recipe for innovation and a 'learning culture' is one that Thomas Friedman writes about a lot too, and holds up the Toyota 'kaizen' model as an example -- taking complex problems finding many small solutions rather than one big complex answer. They seem to have done well with that, though the recent big Toyota recall might either cause some to wonder, or say they merely have a lot more 'learning from failure' to do. There's a parallel discussion going on in education -- whether to group by skill or have integrated classrooms taught by teachers skilled at differentiated instruction. My wife is an 8th grade English teacher and knows a lot about "controlled chaos"!

One question this discussion raises for me in the CDC context is -- do the solutions that work for innovation (i.e. small business developemnt) also work for housing development? Capitalism needs freedom and even 'creative destruction', some argue. But affordable housing development is more about fairness and inclusion, and balancing development with environmental preservation.

Thanks Suzanne and Andrew for your comments.

Like anything else, tension, conflict, and chaos need to be balanced with collaboration, cooperation and systems so I appreciate the questions and sentiments that both of your raise. My sense is that sometimes those of us in the community development and affordable housing fields sometimes fall into "group think" where we fail to challenge ourselves and each other. So yes everything need not devolve into "disagreement and failure" but in any healthy system there must be some of both or else we are not pushing ourselves. And affordable housing development must certainly be about "fairness and inclusion and balancing development with environmental preservation," but we can't wait for total community consensus before we take action or we might never get anywhere and old models of financing need to be reexamined in light of new realities.